By the spring of 1862 the Army of the Potomac, more than 130,000-men strong and under the leadership of the Union general-in-chief George B. McClellan, began its march up the Peninsula intent on taking the Confederate capital at Richmond from the southeast. Confederate general John B. Magruder's much smaller force—numbered at between 11,000 and 15,000 men—was charged with delaying the Union advance and thereby allowing other Confederate forces to consolidate.
During the evening of May 3 and under the cover of its own artillery, the Confederate army abandoned the Yorktown line and began falling back toward Williamsburg, about twelve miles away. The subsequent Union pursuit on May 4 resulted in skirmishes along Hampton and York roads just outside Williamsburg.
Under the overall command of Joseph E. Johnston, much of the Confederate army had already passed through Williamsburg on its way from Yorktown to the defenses of Richmond. As the battle intensified throughout the day, however, several of these units countermarched, or turned around, coming to the aid of Confederate general James Longstreet, who was in command of the rearguard at Williamsburg.
By mid-morning, Union infantrymen from New Jersey, under the command of General Francis Patterson, had turned off Hampton Road and charged into the ravine southeast of Fort Magruder. There they were met by Confederate troops from Alabama and Mississippi commanded by General Cadmus M. Wilcox, of North Carolina. Supported by their respective artillery, these brigades clashed in the confusing undergrowth, felled trees, and swampy ground, slipping and sliding and occasionally mistaking friend for foe. Colonel Nelson Taylor's "Excelsior Brigade," made up of New Yorkers, rushed into line to support the Jerseyans and was met by two brigades of Virginians under A. P. Hill and George E. Pickett, who had rushed to support Wilcox.
By noon and with the rain still falling, both sides were heavily engaged and strengthening their lines. The battle had reached its sixth hour. Williamsburg's public buildings and private homes were inundated with the dead and dying. Private John Taylor Chappell, of the 10th Virginia Cavalry, later wrote that despite the rain and wounded, Williamsburg residents "with field glasses were watching the tide of battle as it ebbed and flowed." A few miles to the east at Union headquarters on York Road local slaves reported to Union general Erasmus D. Keyes that, as Keyes wrote in his official report, "some of the enemy's works on his left were not occupied." Union general Edwin V. Sumner dispatched Winfield Scott Hancock with a brigade of infantry and artillery to investigate.
Late in the afternoon, as the battle and the weather showed no signs of slackening, Hancock's maneuver and subsequent occupation of the empty redoubts was discovered. Longstreet reluctantly dispatched Jubal Early to secure this section of the Confederate line, reasoning that, as he explained in his memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896),"We were only fighting for time to draw off our trains." Only two of Early's four regiments emerged from the dense, tangled undergrowth to challenge Hancock's commanding position. Charging across a field and through a farmyard toward the Union line, the disjointed Confederate assault was cut to pieces by concentrated infantry and artillery fire. Just as the Confederate lines began to break, Union infantry rushed forward. Hancock later wrote in his official report, dated May 11, that as night fell, "For 600 yards in front of our line the whole field was strewn with the enemy's dead."
As argued by the historian Glenn David Brasher and others, such observations began to change the course of the war. At Yorktown, Williamsburg, and for the remainder of the Peninsula Campaign, even those Union soldiers without prior antislavery or abolitionist sentiments began to discuss the issue and raise concerns about the value of slave labor to the Confederates. In fact, in The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (2012), Brasher asserts, "The issue of slaves fleeing to Union lines was less important in the debate over emancipation than was the military contribution of African Americans" to both sides. Moreover, according to Brasher, the Peninsula Campaign "was more important for bringing about emancipation than was the Battle of Antietam"—the battle later that year that provided President Abraham Lincoln an excuse to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
April 4, 1862 - Union general George B. McClellan's army begins its advance toward Richmond but runs into resistance from Confederate general John B. Magruder's Army of the Peninsula based at Yorktown.
April 5, 1862 - Despite outnumbering the Confederates four to one, Union general George B. McClellan decides to besiege Yorktown's defenses instead of assaulting them.
May 3, 1862 - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston withdraws his army from the Yorktown defensive fortifications under cover of night.
May 4 1862, 5 p.m. - The Confederate army retreats from Yorktown to Williamsburg and is hotly pursued by George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac.
May 5, 1862, Dawn - Confederate general James Longstreet occupies Fort Magruder and the redoubts east of Williamsburg as lead elements of George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac begin to test the Confederate defenses.
May 5, 1862, 10 a.m. - By this time at the Battle of Williamsburg, both armies have been reinforced but neither has an advantage. Fighting, centered around what will come to be known as the "bloody ravine," is intense, confused, and often hand-to-hand.
May 5, 1862, 12 p.m. - At the Battle of Williamsburg, as Confederates gain ground, Union officers learn about an unguarded redoubt from local slaves. Union general Winfield Scott Hancock is sent to investigate the reported lapse in southern defenses.
May 5, 1862, 2 p.m. - At the Battle of Williamsburg, a Confederate attack captures some Union cannon, but Union reinforcements arriving on the York and Hampton roads stop the advance.
May 5, 1862, 4 p.m. - At the Battle of Williamsburg, Union troops stabilize their line and begin to push the Confederates back to their fortifications. Union general Winfield Scott Hancock gains possession of a section of the Confederate line unopposed.
May 5, 1862, Dusk - At the Battle of Williamsburg, Union general Winfield Scott Hancock repulses a spirited but disjoined Confederate charge led by Jubal A. Early, gaining the only clear tactical advantage of the battle.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Gruber, D. A. The Battle of Williamsburg. (2014, October 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Williamsburg_The_Battle_of.
- MLA Citation:
Gruber, Drew A. "The Battle of Williamsburg." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 26, 2014 | Last modified: October 30, 2014